Should journalists vote?

Readers want to know what they’re getting. If you are a writer promising them news, well then, the information that you deliver had better be accurate, complete and fresh to your audience. That’s how you build credibility and, over time, audience loyalty.

One of the ways that the journalism industry has tried over the past few decades to reassure the public that its information is accurate is by restricting the political activity of its reporters. But does that work? Does telling reporters not to campaign, not to contribute, or even not to vote, really help build readership?

If recent trends in newspaper circulation offer evidence, the answer is “no.” But it’s hard to separate political restrictions on reporters from the other variables affecting people’s decision whether or not to read a paper.

So, the debate continues. In the build-up to the recent Super Tuesday elections, the editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, John Temple, ordered his newsroom’s reporters not to participate in the Colorado caucuses. (Unlike primaries, in caucuses there are not secret ballots and people must declare their preference publicly.)

“Because caucuses are party activities that involve expressing your political position in public, you should not attend them, unless you’re covering them for the Rocky,” Temple wrote, in an e-mail obtained and published by the Denver weekly Westword. Temple later reversed his decision, according to Westword.

[Disclosure: I used to work for the Rocky Mountain News, though when I edited the Rocky’s website, it did not report to Temple.]

Columnist Dana Parsons of the Los Angeles Times explained why newsrooms have restricted their reporters’ political activity:

“Believe it or not, we are trying to cover these controversial social issues with objectivity. And we still have the belief that people belonging to Greenpeace, for example, shouldn’t be covering the environment.

No, that doesn’t mean we don’t have personal opinions. It just means we’re schooled that you can have an opinion and still report both sides fairly.

And if being a party activist suggests you can’t be impartial (which it would), better not to be one.”

My USC Annenberg colleague, and popular blogger, Marc Cooper, added his view in e-mail to me, coming down on the side of allowing some activity, provided that it is disclosed to readers:

“There is no set formula. My personal view is one of common sense i.e. that obvious conflicts of interest must be avoided. Someone actively involved in a campaign should not be writing about it as and objective observer unless, of course, your editor actually wants a first-person piece with a defined POV (This is common in the journals of opinion I have worked for as compared to most newspapers).

Whether or not a political affairs journalist should be allowed to make a financial contribution to a campaign is, again, a matter that is determined on an employer-by-employer basis. Some permit it. Some don’t. Some won’t even allow their reporters to put a partisan bumpersticker on his or her car.

Again, my personal view is that I would prefer political reporters be passionate and engaged in the process so long as they fully disclose their preferences. Their work can then be fully evaluated for its fairness. I am suspicious of political reporters who have no views. This, however, is a minority position within the profession.”

My take? The winners in the Internet publishing business will be those who write with deep knowledge and committed passion for the topics that they cover. Given that few areas of life stand completely unaffected by elected government, every beat will have some political element. A journalist’s job is to investigate and to report on controversies, including political ones. It’s ridiculous to believe that their reporting is not going to ever lead them to conclude that certain parties’ or certain candidates’ positions are better for their audience than others’.

If that’s the case, those journalists’ reporting would be incomplete — even misleading — if it did not acknowledge and explain the reasons for those conclusions.

Asking journalists to remain silent on politics cheats readers by promoting the idea that a well-informed, “objective” source will have nothing to say about which candidates for elected office offer the best hope for a community. If a reporter’s got nothing to say, why should anyone read him/her?

Furthermore, it’s hard to rest any non-participation policy on the need for “objectivity” when there’s a such a schism in America today over what “objectivity” even means.

Almost everyone working in journalism today ascribes to a post-Englightenment view of truth as deriving from empirical evidence. Collect the data, check them, test them, and we’ll support the hypothesis that they support.

But there’s a massive segment of the public that finds its truth not from empiricism but from creed and canon. In its most popular form in the United States, it is the belief by Christian fundamentalists that physical evidence can and is manipulated by the will of God. Therefore, mankind ought to find truth not through the transience of the physical world but through the enduring word of Scripture.

Therefore, any news reporting that relies completely upon empiricism and that does not acknowledge the word of Scripture cannot be considered “objective,” but is, instead, biased, incomplete and flawed.

I believe that this is the reason why so many news organizations are besieged by accusations of “liberal bias,” because they practice journalism according to a belief structure that is at odds with the belief structure of those readers who complain. The journalism industry’s concept of “objectivity” is objective only within a post-Enlightenment, pro-empiricism belief structure that is not held by a significant segment of the population. Or, in my opinion, a great many people currently in power in United States politics.

Journalists cannot be “objective” to all of their readers. The best we can do is to explain how and why we collect and report the information that we do. And if that information leads us to a specific conclusion, we should reveal that and explain how we got there. That’s truly complete reporting. Whether readers choose to believe it, or to challenge it, is up to them.

In short, allow me to quote the E.W. Scripps motto, which I saw every day atop the Rocky Mountain News when I worked in Denver: “Give light and the people will find their own way.”

Which brings up to the question of the week:

Please give us your take on this issue in the comments.

Update: When I talk about journalists, I mean anyone who publishes news online, whether they use they use the Big “J” word to describe themselves or not. Also, after I’ve made my point here, I suppose I should go ahead and reveal that I voted in the California primary. For Hillary Clinton. (I was going to vote for John Edwards, but when he dropped out, I chose to go with Clinton over Barack Obama. But barely. I find Duncan Black’s analysis of the race compelling.)

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    Journalists spend way too much time worrying about things that readers don’t care about, like AP style, for instance, and far too little time worrying about the things readers really want to know about, like whether that hatchet-job story on a GOP candidate was written by a journalist who’s a liberal Democrat.

    I got out of the newspaper business 13 years ago, after 22 years as an editor and reporter. And just in time, too.

  2. I’ve long thought that “unbiased journalism” was nearly impossible to achieve in practice, and that it is totally impossible to overcome some readers’ perception of bias, no matter what you do.

    In fact, for many years I’ve been telling people, “The only unbiased journalist is one who agrees with me on everything.”

    So yeah, I have biases. I prefer Linux to Windows, right to might, and have a strong tendence to support the underdog over the oppressor.

    I like dogs. I like cats, too, but not as much as I like dogs.

    I believe the West Wight Potter 15 is the cutest small, fiberglass cruising sailboat there is. (Disclosure: I own one.)

    The ideal woman is named Debbie. She’s 5’4″, has dark brown hair and eyes, and light brown skin. (And she’s married to me; other men may have other women they feel are more ideal than Debbie, but that’s THEIR problem.)

    If Barack Obama becomes president, I think he’ll take up smoking again (if he hasn’t already, in secret).

    And no, I did not vote for Obama in the primary. I probably would have, but I live in Florida and the national Democratic Party didn’t want votes from Florida so I re-registered as a Republican and voted for John McCain.

    Now I’m registered as an independent again, which has pretty much been my natural state for the last decade or so.

  3. says:


    My comments address the seemingly never-ending struggle to obfuscate the topic and thereby effectively forever block introduction of ethics into journalism.

    Invariably the topic is broached in an excruciatingly convoluted and complex manner. It almost seems as though this approach is due either to: an impossibly sincere attempt to address all possible eventualities that may lead to not being ethical or it any be this is due to a nefarious motive to make it impossible to ever attain ethics in journalism.

    If the former, then I personally believe the ethical ground-rules can be reduced to a few strikingly simple axioms, in lieu of continuing the life struggle and career some have made of this topic to develop same without the least whiff of success.

    If the latter, then journalists should look the developers of ethics criteria in the eye and label the effort the sham it is.

    One, ethics in news journalism boils down to the taking of personal responsibility. If we are honest (a subjective characteristic – inbred or developed through persistence) with ourselves, if we have a conscious we all know when we are or are not being ethical. So do the readers.

    Two – simply put, being ethical in journalism is being factual, never opinionated. Not being opinionated encompasses not only content but also the selections of topics.

    Individuals who choose an approach not governed by these axioms are not being ethical. Neither the individual nor a supposedly compensating bureaucracy of a group of overseers who refuse to accept the simple criteria – being factual vs. opinionated – will ever in sum total produce an ethical product. One loose cannon will spoil the product, whether reporter, editor, or publisher. There can never enough

  4. says:

    Journalists, like all of us have opinions. Those opinions will invariably come through in thier writing. It’s an involuntary action, like breathing. You don’t think about it, you just do it.

    Writing is to a writer, like breathing. It is something they must do and to ask them to be completly unbiased is rediculus.

  5. says:

    Reporters should not campaign, put campaign signs in their yards, wear campaign buttons on their clothing. Doing that usurps the editorial power of the news medium.
    Reporters vote the same way as any citizen: by secret ballot; reporters are human; reporters have biases; reporters should keep their biases in mind to ensure that their report is as objective as possible.
    If reporters should not vote, then United States reporters should not cover the war in which the United States is a participant. In fact, some reporters say that they are neutral, that their coverage of the war is from a neutral position. Thus, they justify all that business about U.S. soldiers killing so-called innocent civilians, women and children.
    Douglas Perret Starr
    Professor of Agricutural Communications and Journalism
    Texas A&M University

  6. says:

    I see no reason why a journalist should shirk his responsibility as a citizen by not voting.